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As we increasingly digitalise everything and send satellites to space for enhanced connectivity, the digital is fluidly intertwining with our physical reality. Still, for many accessing digital is not a universal human capability yet. It requires a certain level of digital literacy, understanding of the digital interfaces, and most importantly connectivity. But as one steps through the digital door, a whole new universe opens up – a universe of online entertainment, news, social connections, employment, finances, rights, aid and new challenges.


Access is increasingly becoming essential for delivering humanitarian work of high quality. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged our understanding of ‘access to go digital’, which prior has been especially visible in the spending behaviour of forcibly displaced. Research found that forcibly displaced spend up to one-third of their disposable income to get connected. But despite the importance of digital access, forcibly displaced are 50% less likely than the rest of the population to have mobile phones that connect to the internet.


In this future, we want to explore the door to digital - what enhances or hinders finding and stepping through this door? Which current technological trends could make barriers to digital access obsolete? How can aid delivery leverage technology in a smart and including manner? And which never-before anticipated possibilities and risks await us behind the door? While diving into this chapter we ask of you to consider:


How can we empower forcibly displaced in opening the door to digital?


Below, you find three selected accelerators, most prominently influencing the development of digital access.

First and foremost, it is about connectivity

While mobile penetration continues to increase and 4G networks are now reachable to 85% of the world‘s population - half were still offline by 2020. A study by GSMA in Rwanda, Uganda, and Jordan shows that even though over two-thirds of forcibly displaced are active mobile users, only one-third of respondents in Rwanda and Uganda have used the internet. Besides digital literacy and charging opportunities, the main barrier to access digital is surprising not that they don’t have a digital device – rather it is that they are not able to afford connectivity.


Luckily, the world is growing wireless and free with public wifi options popping up. Moja, a free wifi network in Kenya, was installed in 700 public busses by the Kenyan start-up BRCK. The network allows over 2 million users to connect to digital services while they are commuting – free of charge. During the pandemic, DRC and BRCK joined forces to provide educational and COVID-19 related content online and offline to incentivise appropriate practices and provide access to education for children who had to stay at home. Where connectivity is not free, prices for connectivity are gradually decreasing. Globally, mobile plan prices have dropped by 7% on average annually between 2013 and 2019. Besides affordability, more stable connectivity is sitting on our doorsteps with the 5G and 6G mobile broadband and promises lightning-speed connectivity for those connected today.


For forcibly displaced, affordable and stable connectivity will be ground-breaking. If the first step to become digital is connectivity - who should offer it to forcibly displaced? And in which situations can increased high-speed internet change aid delivery? And might offering connectivity hold a potential business case?



Access beyond mobile

The COVID-19 pandemic has polished new tech diamonds and placed them in the spotlight of aid delivery. Drones, iris scanners, and 3D printing methods might become the good Samaritans of the next decade. The Rwanda National Police for instance already uses drones to deliver messages and raise awareness on COVID-19 lockdowns. In Jordan, more than 2.500 forcibly displaced made use of quarantine delivery service during social distancing enabled by iris scanners. Here, for grocery handover, the shopper was verified by a smartphone held on a social-distancing stick and a small Bluetooth printer attached to the delivery person‘s belt printed a receipt. The 3D printing technology opens new doors to aid too. In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, 3D printers allowed for the production of customised prosthetics to help disabled children in the camp.


Since the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) wearable technology clings to the human body. Within three years, the number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to double to reach more than one billion. Nowadays, wearables primarily track our health or fitness but smartwatches can also help us navigate and connect.


During the global Covid-19 lockdown, many doctors provided virtual health care to forcibly displaced by using smart glasses. Here, volunteers on the ground wore smart glasses through which doctors from all over the world could connect to provide relief. Taking it a step further, NeuraLink (Elon Musk‘s newest venture) pilots a wireless implant that allow our minds to access the internet directly.


We are increasingly accessing digital through new interfaces that go beyond the mobile. These advanced technologies can function as aid delivery channels while the lines between the physical human body and digital interfaces become blurry. How will new technologies and advanced interfaces affect aid delivery? Where and how could access beyond mobile support forcibly displaced?

What is true and valuable

Accessing the internet does not necessarily imply that high-quality, useful content is made available. For one, the barrier of language is prevalent. 80% of digital content is written in English which restricts access for people speaking minority languages. But the translation of digital content into the Arabic language is gaining momentum, and today, Google Translate offers translation into roughly 100 languages out of 4,000 written languages globally.


But whereas language represents one barrier to access valuable information, pay-walls represent a whole other issue. More and more businesses offer digital content and services in what is classified as a freemium business model. This model allows users to access basic services for free but offers the option to pay for a premium version – one with more content and access. Spotify and Dropbox master this model, but also the higher-education platform Kiron targeting forcibly displaced runs on a freemium service. Even though the freemium model at a first glance appears to increase access to diverse high-quality content for everyone, other barriers can deny or hamper access.


Further, we see access being increasingly restricted by censorships and regulations from governments or other ruling parties. While many global social media platforms (Facebook, WhatsApp) have been banned in China for years, the Indian government recently ordered to regulate all online content platforms. Similarly, many Middle Eastern leaders monitor or prohibit internet traffic on certain sites. The reasons might be two-fold – both cultural and political, but non the less restricts access to valuable information.


Accessible or not, digital content is not yet equally valuable or even truthful. The past American presidential elections serve as evidence here, but also myths about Covid-19 have shown the grand implications fake news can have. Countries and businesses fight back by adopting new regulations. Germany adopted the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) in 2017 which obliges social media providers to remove illegal or fake content. WhatsApp recently imposed strict limits on forwarding messages.


Looking into the future, how can the delivery of aid enforce truthful digital content? What new business models enable forcibly displaced to access high-quality and relevant digital content? How can the humanitarian sector notice when access to the internet does not equal access to digital content?


In this future, we revealed characteristics that shape the door to digital. While fast and affordable connectivity is a prerequisite to digital access, new interfaces beyond the mobile phone will just as much shape the way we access the digital realm. But even if access to the internet is given, access to understandable, truthful, and valuable digital content marks the final push to step fully into digital. During this almost transition-like process, the needs, wishes, and conditions of forcibly displaced have to be taken into account to mitigate potential risks and unlock the benefit from the power of digital.


The signals above suggest how the digital might further merge with our human body, how socializing in the digital might change quicker than we can blink and power and connectivity might go wireless. Within the humanitarian sector, we see new business models and organisations popping up, aiming to grant access through connection and devices to those that are yet to get online.


Coming back to where we started, we challenge you to connect the dots and ask yourself again:


How can we aid forcibly displaced in opening the door to digital?

  • If the first barrier to digital is connectivity - who should and can ensure that forcibly displaced are connected?

  • How can the new technologies and interfaces - that go beyond mobile - function as aid delivery channels while avoiding digital litter?

  • How can innovative approaches and business models empower forcibly displaced to access digital and become creators of digital themselves?

  • How might access to digital make former disadvantages such as living in rural settings or being disabled obsolete?

  • How can the humanitarian sector assess the value of obtaining digital access for forcibly displaced?

These questions and more, we will explore together on our journey forward!

So what?


Below, you find signals from the edge as well as from within the humanitarian sector. Click the signals to explore them further and use the arrows to navigate between them. Here, we encourage you to navigate this section with a “what if” mindset

- and note down any ideas and thoughts that may arise.

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